1. ITV Report

The Salcombe Disaster: remembering one of the worst tragedies in RNLI history

The town of Salcombe has held a memorial service for the crew who lost their lives in one of the worst tragedies in the RNLI's history - a hundred years ago.

100 years ago, these waters took the lives of 13 people Credit: ITV News

The Salcombe Disaster

On the 27th of October 1916, an RNLI crew went to the aid of the Schooner, the Western Lass.

The lifeboat crew all lived in Salcombe - and had a 25 to 30 minute run to get to the lifeboat station at South Sands to launch the boat.

It was early morning, dark, and the sea conditions were treacherous.

These artist impressions show how perilous the sea was

The rough weather caused communication systems to break down, so as the RNLI began the row towards Prawle Point, they had no idea those on the Western Lass had already been rescued.

These images show the moment a great wave capsized the William and Emma - drowning most of the crew.

All but two of the crew died that morning.

Thirteen of the crew on board the William and Emma died

One survivor was Eddie Distin. His great-grandson has now followed in his footsteps, becoming an RNLI crewman.

James Cooper showing our reporter the spot where the boat capsized Credit: ITV West Country

What I've heard through family members is that he found it very difficult after the incident...losing 13 of your close friends, your peers...

I think it must have been a hard decision to [become a Coxswain] but I think that's why he did it - to carry on their legacy and carry on what he'd been doing.


For today's crew, honouring the memory of their colleagues is incredibly important.

9 of those killed were fishermen, their loss practically wiping out Salcombe's fishing fleet.

There was something very sad and very poignant about the loss, thousands of men were lost on the Western Front and we remember them, but there seems to be something very special about the loss of those 13 men who gave up their lives doing their duty...

not fighting against a sort of mortal foe but battling against the sea and making the ultimate sacrifice.

– Roger Barrett, Author, 'The Salcombe Lifeboat Disaster'

These three headstones tell the tragic story three crew members, all from the same family, who died.

Credit: ITV West Country

On that fateful day 100 years ago, Emily Foale lost her husband and both her sons to the sea.

What they left behind though, was a community that will never forget them.